The magic trick that was no trick

In the 1920s, there was a traveling magician named Raja Raboid, who had a trick so startling that grown men were known to scream in horror and flee at the sight of it. You’ve probably heard of the trick, the one where a woman in a box appears to be sawed in half and is then magically put back together. It’s a cliché, now. It was a cliché then, too. Only Raja Raboid had a twist on the trick that shocked people out of their ever-loving minds.

The trick was very simple, but effective and unexpected. Raboid had an assistant named Johnny Eck, a man who was born with only a body from the waist up and walked around using his hands. He performed for years in carnival sideshows as the “half boy,” and famously appeared in the classic 1932 movie “Freaks.” (We accept you! One of us!)

Johnny had a twin brother, Robert, who was full-bodied. The two worked together with Raboid in the 1930s, performing this spectacular trick. In it, Robert would pretend to be an audience member and heckle Raboid during the show. The goading would result in Raboid calling him up onto the stage to climb into the box and have his legs sawed off himself. But Johnny was secretly switched into the top of the box, while a little person switched and contorted into the bottom, hidden inside a full-sized pair of trousers.

Raboid would then “saw” Johnny in half, he’d pop out of the box crying for his legs to be reconnected, and the little person inside the pants would then jump up and run around the room, sending people into hysterics, often fleeing the theater.

Early on, when I would I revisit the memory of my attack, I’d often think about this, and about Johnny Eck. How, even without legs, at least he could still move. I work at this every day, but the phantom pains and the nausea inducing disorientation keeps me a prisoner in my own head. That instinctual, internal sense of how to put one foot in front of the other – without being able to see my actual feet in said space – makes walking next to impossible. The doctors tell me there’s a word for this. Proprioception. I still play it over in my mind, mulling on a daily basis on an incident that probably all told, lasted half a minute.

It was a quiet audience that night. The time had come for the requisite “saw the woman in half” portion of the show, or as we in magic circles call it, “the zig zag” illusion, on account of how the subject in the box must contort themselves around the blades. My assistant, we’ll call her Maggie (her name has been changed to protect her anonymity) was already lying horizontal, locked in the cabinet. I held the grip of a single-edged katana blade from feudal-era Japan. Real steel. Solid. Heavy. To demonstrate, I use it to slice straight through a solid block of ice.

As is part of the performance, Maggie reacts with shock, awe and fear over what will become of her. It was at this point we all heard an empathetic gasp of distress from an audience member in the back rows. It was loud and guttural, a hyperventilating war-cry. The stage lights made it difficult for me to see the source of these cries, but it was enough to make me pause from our performance.

“Don’t do it. SOMEONE STOP HIM!” he wailed.

A murmur in the crowd. Was this part of the act? It wasn’t, but I could use it. A magician knows that building tension is the key to a successful act. We set up an expectation and then subvert it. I’ve dealt with cynical, belligerent audience members before. Not just the ones that I secretly planted in the back aisles, but those off the street who may have lost some cash at the casino, and who pay to escape their problems for our world of wonder. This man, perhaps in his inebriation was having trouble separating reality from craftsmanship and in this case, the craftsmanship relied less on me but on that of Maggie’s zig-zagging within. But forever a showman, I goaded him for maximum pay off.

“Don’t worry, sir, she has good medical insurance.”

Nervous laughter.

As I moved away from the bisected block of ice to the cutting cabinet, so did he – from his seat to rush the stage. This was a subversion so unexpected and too fast for me to react. Of course, in hindsight, I have wondered – was there time? Could I have actually turned tail and ran? Was it my pride or fear of embarrassment that kept me standing there frozen as this enraged/deranged person wrested the sword from my hands, and then swung it full force straight across my neck?

It was a powerful blow. A clean slice. Decapitation.

My body collapsed immediately in a heap, but my head rolled and teetered at the edge of stage. I lay there, incapacitated, blood gushing and yet, miraculously I remained lucid.. Maggie, still locked inside the cabinet, screaming in abject horror, and at this point so was much of the audience. The energy in the room was intense and confused. What was happening? Was this some sort of gruesome Grand Guignol show, or was this truly a magic act gone terribly wrong? And what of me? Was I hallucinating this? Is this what an out of body experience felt like? How could I have so many questions circling inside my brain at this moment? Shouldn’t I be dead?

But I was not. I was inexplicably, a helpless witness as severed head on the ground, watching my assailant unsuccessfully trying to calm my assistant, frantically wrestling to unlock the contraption that housed her. What he did not know was that in cabinet, there was an escape hatch to below stage, which in her panic she still had the presence of mind to use. Her head and limbs snuck back into the box, and she disappeared from everyone’s view.

By this point, someone, I do not know who, tackled the man to the ground out of my peripheral vision. Chaos ensued in the theater. My stage manager ran to me. Though I could not speak, instinctually she could see in my eyes that I was somehow still alive. She bent down to my level, bewildered and fearful.

“Is this real life?” she asked me.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

What is real, and what is not? No doubt, this incident reads like an absurdly tall tale, as unreal and unbelievable a scenario as anyone could concoct. But these are the facts as I learned them later:

My assistant, Maggie, our “zig zag” girl, escaped to safety.

The enraged man had developed an infatuation with Maggie and could not bear to see me slice her in two. He snapped. What he did in his own mind was an act of heroism to rescue her and do unto me what I was about to enact on her. He was forcefully subdued on stage, detained, arrested and deemed not fit to stand trial. He is in a mental institution now and seems to be doing much better with the proper meds.

In that half minute, my life was ruined. My pain was very real. I was a young man cut down in my prime. Many believe me to be dead. I am not. I have had much time to rage and mourn the loss of my body, to try to make sense of the impossible, but no doctor, scientist, or priest can accurately explain any of this to me. It’s why I remain here under study. And where is here? I have entertained some theories:

A hospital.

A research lab.

The Yellow Base in Idaho.

The Pentagon.

Some black site in the Indian Ocean.

An atrocity exhibit in a freak of nature museum.

For all I know, I could be in some department store warehouse off the Vegas strip. Who are these people who take care of me, feed me, converse with me, rehabilitate me and keep me breathing? They are kind voices but their faces hide behind mirrored glass.

My head rests in a glass case – immovable without the muscles in my neck, protected like the crown jewels. I am kept breathing by aged machines and an iron lung-like contraption. I have a consistent view of my bottom half — torso and limbs – seated and strapped comfortably at a desk across the room. It doesn’t have a mouth to speak or eyes to see, but it still has functional, conjuring hands and fingers. This is the greatest consolation from this live horror show. I have been trained to mentally command my disconnected body; to trigger my motor functions. First I began with simple coin tricks. Next, I began to write down my thoughts. I push and project the words you are reading right now across the air in this room, the friction of pencil to paper. I do this every day, long hand and find it immensely therapeutic. I’m told by my keepers that these entries will be helpful to those studying the next step in human evolution. I’m thinking more short term. How about a nightly gig at the MGM Grand?

This is a magic trick that has no trick, no sleight of hand, no secret compartments. I am real magic. I would sell out every night. My brain floating in a vat on stage left, my headless body on stage right. It would make a humble bow from the waist as my hands would make a flourishing gesture. Then, throwing my voice like a ventriloquist from somewhere else entirely, I would ask my rapt audience…

“… are you not entertained?!”